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How to Handle Refusals to Write Medical Letters of Recommendation

Obtaining great letters of recommendation is critical to the success of your medical school application. When you request a letter of recommendation for someone and they do not respond with an enthusiastic “I’d be happy to write you an outstanding letter of recommendation!” you need to be prepared with a plan.

Unfortunately, some of the individuals you approach with your request for a letter or recommendation may not be in a position to provide one. Some may not have time, while others may simply feel that they cannot write you a good letter.

When requesting a letter of recommendation, you need to ask whether or not the evaluator can write you a strong letter of recommendation. By specifying that you’re looking for a strong letter, you provide the evaluator with an easy way to let you know that she doesn’t feel she can write an effective letter for you.

Although rejection in any form is disappointing, it’s better to know up front that a letter you get from this person may be weak. Anyone who is direct about not being able to write you a great letter has done you a favor: By being honest, she’s allowed you to avoid having a lackluster letter in your file.

This is worth repeating: If a potential letter writer shows any hesitation, or you doubt her ability or willingness to write a great letter, don’t get a letter from that person.

Instead, tell the evaluator that you appreciate her honesty, that you want your candidacy for medical school to be as strong as possible, and that you understand that she can’t provide you with the type of letter you’re seeking.

This situation is unlikely to occur with letter writers you’re well acquainted with, but if you’re in the position of having to ask for a letter from someone you don’t know extremely well, you’re more likely to find that the person can’t give you what you need.

Some professors are more accommodating than others, so keep trying until you find someone who understands the dilemma students face when trying to find enough letters, and who will go out of her way to write a good letter.

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